While the Institutes was in the press (March 1536), Calvin, according to a tradition generally but not unanimously accepted,24 made a hurried trip across the Alps to Ferrara, probably to ask help for the persecuted Protestants of France from the Protestant Duchess Renée, wife of Duke Ercole II and daughter of the late Louis XII. Moved by the fervor of his religious convictions, she made him her spiritual guide through reverent correspondence till his death. Returning to Basel in May, Calvin ventured to Noyon to sell some property; then, with a brother and a sister, he started for Strasbourg. War barring the road, they stopped for a time at Geneva (July 1536).
The capital of French Switzerland was older than history. In prehistoric times it was a congeries of lake dwellings, built upon piles, some of which can still be seen. In Caesar’s day it was a busy crossing of trade routes at the bridge where the Rhone rushes out of Lake Leman to wander through France in search of the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages Geneva fell under the secular as well as spiritual rule of its bishop. Normally the bishop was chosen by the cathedral chapter, which thereby became a power in the city; this was essentially the government that Calvin later restored in Protestant form. In the fifteenth century the dukes of Savoy, which lay just beyond the Alps, secured control of the chapter, and raised to the episcopate men subservient to Savoy and given to thepleasures of this world for fear there might not be a next. The once excellent episcopal government, and the morals of the clergy under it, deteriorated. A priest, bidden to dismiss his concubine, agreed to do so as soon as his fellow clergymen would be equally ungallant; gallantry prevailed.25
Within this ecclesiastical-ducal rule the leading families of Geneva organized a Council of Sixty for municipal ordinances, and the Council chose four syndics as executive officers. Usually the Council met in the bishop’s cathedral of St. Peter; and religious and civil jurisdiction were so mingled that while the bishop minted the coinage and led the army, the Council regulated morals, issued excommunications, and licensed prostitutes. As in Trier, Mainz, and Cologne, the bishop was also a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and naturally assumed functions from which bishops are now free. Some civic leaders, led by François de Bonnivard, sought to liberate the city from both the episcopal and the ducal authority. To strengthen this movement these Patriotes effected an alliance with Catholic Fribourg and Protestant Bern. Adherents of the alliance were called by the German term for confederates—Eidgenossen, oath comrades; the French corrupted this into Huguenots. By 1520 the Genevese leaders were mostly businessmen, for Geneva, unlike Wittenberg, was a commercial city, mediating in trade between Switzerland on the north, Italy on the south, and France on the west. The Genevese burghers set up (1526) a Great Council of Two Hundred, and this chose a Small Council of Twenty-Five, which became the real ruler of the municipality, frequently flouting the authority of bishop and duke alike. The bishop declared the city in rebellion, and summoned ducal troops to his aid. These seized Bonnivard, and imprisoned him in the castle of Chillon. The Bernese army came to the aid of beleaguered Geneva; the duke’s forces were defeated and dispersed; the bishop fled to Annecy; Byron’s hero was freed from his dungeon. The Great Council, angered by the clergy’s support of Savoy, declared for the Reformed faith, and assumed ecclesiastical as well as civil jurisdiction throughout the city (1536), two months before Calvin arrived.
The doctrinal hero of this revolution was William Farel. Like Luther, he was passionately pious in youth. At Paris he came under the influence of Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, whose translation and explanation of the Bible upset Farel’s orthodoxy; for in the Scriptures he could find no trace of popes, bishops, indulgences, purgatory, seven sacraments, the Mass, the celibacy of the clergy, the worship of Mary or the saints. Disdaining ordination, he set out as an independent preacher, wandering from town to town in France and Switzerland. Small of stature, weak of frame, strong of voice and spirit, his pale face brightened by fiery eyes and a beard of flaming red, he denounced the pope as Antichrist, the Mass as sacrilege, the church icons as idola that must be destroyed. In 1532 he began to preach in Geneva. He was arrested by the bishop’s agents, who proposed to throw the “Lutheran dog” into the Rhone; the syndics intervened, and Farel escaped with a few bruises on his head and some spittle on his coat. He won the Council of Twenty-Five to his views, and, with the aid of Peter Viret and Antoine Froment, aroused so much popular support that nearly all the Catholic clergy departed. On May 21, 1536, the Small Council decreed the abolition of the Mass, and the removal of all images and relics from the churches. Ecclesiastical properties were converted to Protestant uses for religion, charity, and education; education was made compulsory and free of charge; and a strict moral discipline was made law. The citizens were called upon to swear allegiance to the Gospel, and those who refused to attend Reformed services were banished.26 This was the Geneva to which Calvin came.
Farel was now forty-seven; and though he was destined to outlive Calvin by a year, he saw in the stern and eloquent youth, twenty years his junior, just the man needed to consolidate and advance the Reform. Calvin was reluctant; he had planned a life of scholarship and writing; he was more at ease with God than with men. But Farel, with the mien of some thundering Biblical prophet, threatened to lay a holy curse upon him if he should prefer his private studies to the arduous and dangerous preaching of the undiluted Word. Calvin yielded; Council and presbytery approved; and-with no other ordination—he began his ministry (September 5, 1536) by giving in the church of St. Peter the first of several addresses on the Epistles of St. Paul. Everywhere in Protestantism, except among the socially radical sects, the influence of Paul overshadowed that of Peter, the reputed founder of the Roman See.
In October Calvin accompanied Farel and Viret to Lausanne, and took a minor part in the famous disputation that won that city to the Protestant camp. Returning to Geneva, the senior and junior pastors of St. Peter’s set about to rededicate the Genevese to God. Sincerely accepting the Bible as the literal Word of God, they felt an inescapable obligation to enforce its moral code. They were shocked to find many of the people given to singing, dancing, and similar gaieties; moreover, some gambled, or drank to intoxication, or committed adultery. An entire district of the city was occupied by prostitutes, under the rule of their own Reine du bordel, the Brothel Queen. To the fiery Farel and the conscientious Calvin a genial acceptance of this situation was treason to God.
To restore the religious basis of an effective morality, Farel issued a Confession of Faith and Discipline, and Calvin a popular Catechism, which the Great Council approved (November 1536). Citizens persistently transgressing the moral code were to be excommunicated and exiled. In July 1537, the Council ordered all citizens to go to the church of St. Peter and swear allegiance to Farel’s Confession. Any manifestation of Catholicism—such as carrying a rosary, cherishing a sacred relic, or observing a saint’s day as holy—was subject to punishment. Women were imprisoned for wearing improper hats. Bonnivard, too joyous in his liberty, was warned to end his licentious ways. Gamblers were put into the stocks. Adulterers were driven through the streets into banishment.
Accustomed to ecclesiastical rule, but to the lenient moral discipline of a Catholicism softened by southern climes, the Genevese resisted the new dispensation. The Patriotes, who had freed the city from bishop and duke, reorganized to free it from its zealous ministers. Another party, demanding liberty of conscience and worship, and therefore called Libertins or Liberals,* joined with the Patriotes and the secret Catholics; and this coalition, in the election of February 3, 1538, captured a majority in the Great Council. The new Council told the ministers to keep out of politics. Farel and Calvin denounced the Council, and refused to serve the Lord’s Supper until the rebellious city conformed to the sworn discipline. The Council deposed the two ministers (April 23), and ordered them to leave the city within three days. The people celebrated the dismissal with public rejoicings.27 Farel accepted a call to Neuchâtel; there he preached to the end of his days (1565), and there a public monument honors his memory.
Calvin went to Strasbourg, then a free city subject only to the emperor, and ministered to L’Église des Étrangers, a congregation of Protestants chiefly from France. To eke out the fifty-two guilders ($1,300?) annually paid him by the church, he sold his library and took students as boarders. Finding bachelorhood inconvenient in this situation, he asked Farel and Bucer to search out a wife for him, and listed specifications: “I am none of those insane lovers who, when once smitten with the fine figure of a woman, embrace also her faults. This only is the beauty which allures me—that she be chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health.”28 After two false starts he married (1540) Idelette de Bure, a poor widow with several children. She bore him one child, who died in infancy. When she passed away (1549) he wrote of her with the private tenderness that underlay his public severity. He lived in domestic loneliness the remaining fifteen years of his life.
While he labored in Strasbourg events moved on at Geneva. Encouraged by the expulsion of Farel and Calvin, the exiled bishop planned a triumphant return to his cathedral. As a preliminary step he persuaded Iacopo Sadoleto to write an Epistle to the Genevese, urging them to resume their Catholic worship and faith (1539). Sadoleto was a gentleman of exceptional virtue for a cardinal and a humanist; he had already advised the papacy to handle Protestant dissent gently, and he later received under his protection at Carpentras heretical Waldenses fleeing from massacre (1545). In a fine Latin learned under the impeccable Bembo, he addressed “to his dearly beloved Brethren, the Magistrates, Senate, and citizens of Geneva,” twenty pages of diplomatic courtesies and theological exhortation. He noted the rapid division of Protestantism into warring sects, led, he alleged, by crafty men avid for power; he compared this with the centuries-long unity of the Roman Church, and asked whether it was more likely that truth lay with those contradictory factions than with a Catholic doctrine formed by the experience of ages and the assembled intelligence of ecclesiastical councils. He concluded by offering to Geneva whatever service it was in his power to give.
The Council thanked him for his compliments, and promised him a further response. But no one could be found in Geneva who would undertake to cross swords, or Latin, with the polished humanist. Meanwhile a number of citizens asked to be released from their oath to support the Confession of Faith and Discipline, and for a time it seemed that the city would return to Catholicism. Calvin learned of the situation, and in a reply to the Cardinal he rose with all the power of his mind and pen to the defense of the Reformation. He countered courtesy with courtesy, eloquence with eloquence, but he would not yield an inch of his theology. He protested against the implication that he had rebelled through personal ambition; he could have risen to far greater comfort had he remained orthodox. He admitted the divine foundation of the Catholic Church, but he charged that the vices of the Renaissance popes proved the capture of the papacy by Antichrist. To the wisdom of Church councils he opposed the wisdom of the Bible, which Sadoleto had almost ignored. He regretted that the corruption of the Church had necessitated secession and division, but only so could the evils be cured. If Catholics and Protestants would now co-operate to cleanse the doctrine, ritual, and personnel of all the Christian churches, they would be rewarded with a final unity in heaven with Christ. It was a powerful letter, perhaps unappreciative of the incidental virtues of the Renaissance popes, but otherwise phrased with a comity and dignity rare in the controversies of the time. Luther, reading it in Wittenberg, hailed it as quite annihilating the Cardinal; “I rejoice,” he cried, “that God raises up men who will .... finish the war against Antichrist which I began.” 29 The Council of Geneva was so impressed that it ordered the two letters printed at the city’s expense (1540). It began to wonder whether, in banishing Calvin, it had lost the ablest man in the Swiss Reform.
Other factors nourished the doubt. The ministers who had replaced Farel and Calvin proved incompetent both in preaching and in discipline. The public lost respect for them, and returned to the easy morality of unreformed days. Gambling, drunkenness, street brawls, adultery, flourished; lewd songs were publicly sung, persons romped naked through the streets.30 Of the four syndics who had led the movement to expel Farel and Calvin, one had to be condemned to death for murder, another for forgery, a third for treason, and the fourth died while trying to escape arrest. The businessmen who controlled the Council must have frowned upon this disorder as impeding trade. The Council itself had no taste for being replaced and perhaps excommunicated by a restored bishop. Gradually a majority of the members came to the idea of recalling Calvin. On May 1, 1541, the Council annulled the sentence of banishment, and pronounced Farel and Calvin to be honorable men. Deputation after deputation was sent to Strasbourg to persuade Calvin to resume his pastorate at Geneva. Farel forgave the city for not extending him a similar invitation, and with noble generosity joined the deputations in urging Calvin to return. But Calvin had made many friends in Strasbourg, felt obligations there, and saw nothing but strife in store for him at Geneva; “there is no place in the world that I fear more.” He agreed only to pay the city a visit. When he arrived (September 13, 1541) he received so many honors, so many apologies, so many promises of co-operation in reestablishing order and the Gospel, that he had not the heart to refuse. On September 16 he wrote to Farel: “Your wish is granted. I am held fast here. May God give His blessing.”31